Marine Le Pen, the election-bound Leader of France's National Front, was thrilled when Donald Trump took the White House. The Americans had woken up, she said, predicting the Europeans "will wake up," too, in 2017. She even made a ritual journey to Trump Tower in Manhattan, evidently to breathe the same air as the great man himself.
Today, two weeks before the first round of the French presidential elections, "Trump" has disappeared from Ms. Le Pen's vocabulary. The love affair between the two immigrant-fearing nationalists seems over.
Putting distance between herself and her onetime hero is a smart move, for Mr. Trump is highly unpopular among French voters. He is even unpopular among National Front supporters.
But why? My own view is that European populists have come to dislike Mr. Trump not so much because he is an erratic, inarticulate bully with zero attention span and scant regard for facts (although he is guilty of all these sins) but that he is a fake populist. Love her or loathe her, Ms. Le Pen is not. She no doubt thinks Mr. Trump is giving populists a bad name.
Indeed, his first months as U.S. President have been a gift to the rich and powerful. The U.S. stock markets have soared since the November election, with financial stocks doing particularly well. The big, fat rally can be partly explained by Mr. Trump's desire to unshackle the banking industry from postcrisis regulations passed during the Barack Obama era, including the Dodd-Frank law.
Prison stocks have doubled since November, because Mr. Trump plans to stuff privately held prisons with fresh offenders. Defence stocks are doing well and rose again on Friday after commander-in-chief Trump sent 59 cruise missiles into Syria.
Poor people don't own financial, prison and defence stocks. The wealthy do. At some point, Mr. Trump will hammer down corporate and personal taxes, with the biggest gains going to the wealthiest. The care and feeding of the rich and powerful is reflected at the cabinet and senior advisory levels. Among the list of appointees who worked at Goldman Sachs are White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Gary Cohn, who is director of the National Economic Council.
So much for Mr. Trump's "drain the swamp" populist revolution. Mr. Trump even tried to kill Obamacare. It looks as if the neo-liberal order is still intact in Mr. Trump's America. His best hope of delivering his promises to average Americans now lies in his "Buy America" economic agenda. But it seems unlikely that scads of manufacturing jobs will return to the United States.
In Europe, the sad news is that the challenge to the neo-liberal agenda is not coming from the progressive left. It's coming from the right, sometimes the far right. Neo-liberalism is hard to define, but it can be viewed as the trend where the "market" comes to dominate political and economic life and where the state's role becomes ever weaker.
Regulations become ever less strict. Entire industries are privatized, taxes are cut, enlarging the private sector but jeopardizing social services such as public health-care systems, and free trade becomes the norm. The economy becomes "financialized" – that is, banks and their liabilities become enormous relative to gross domestic product and come to exist, it seems, to serve themselves first, their clients second.
To be sure, the trend that puts the market first has created a lot of wealth. But it has also created a gaping wealth divide, marking a stark departure from the Keynesian agenda, which lasted from the end of the Second World War to start of the era of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher and which focused on full employment and equality.
Ms. Le Pen's economic policies are broadly populist, which appeals greatly to the anti-establishment crowd, to the voters who want to break some glass and to the unemployed or underemployed, who feel they have been harmed by globalization and the retreat of the state.
While many of her policies are ill-defined, she wants to create a new economic model that aims to make French business more competitive by reintroducing the franc (a currency that could be devalued); eliminate the state's dependence on the financial markets by authorizing the direct financing of the treasury by the Bank of France; reregulate markets so they actually serve the people; stop companies that receive taxpayer assistance from being snapped up by foreign private-equity firms, and so on.
Some of these plans might make sense, but might be unworkable unless she succeeds in yanking France out of the European Union and the euro. Some of the plans might make no sense. But there is no doubt Ms. Le Pen is the real populist, not Mr. Trump. The problem for Ms. Le Pen is she is also strongly anti-Muslim, broadly anti-immigrant and condemned by millions as an isolationist, xenophobe and racist. She is likely to win the first round of the presidential election, but not the second round, in May. The populist revolution in France would die with her defeat. Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. populist revolution seems to have died even before it started.